A federal judge recently thwarted Attorney General John Ashcroft's efforts to stall Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. After surviving voter and legal challenges, the 1994 Oregon Death with Dignity Act went into effect in October 1997. The Act permits physicians to assist terminally ill patients to end their lives under certain circumstances.
This battle began when Ashcroft issued the so-called "Ashcroft directive," published in the Federal Register on November 9, 2001, in which Ashcroft declared that controlled substances may not be dispensed to assist suicide, which reversed the position taken by his predecessor, former Attorney General Janet Reno.
The Ashcroft directive stated that assisting suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" and that prescribing, dispensing, or administering federally controlled substances to assist suicide violates the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Moreover, such conduct by a physician who is registered to dispense controlled substances may "render his registration...inconsistent with the public interest," and, therefore, subject the physician's DEA license to possible suspension or revocation.
In Oregon v. Ashcroft, decided April 17, 2002, the federal judge said that the citizens of Oregon had voted twice "to resolve the moral, legal and ethical debate for themselves." He emphasized that his decision was a matter of statutory interpretation of the CSA, which he concluded does not prohibit practitioners from prescribing and dispensing controlled substances in compliance with a carefully-worded state legislative act. Though the judge declared the Ashcroft directive invalid, he did not criticize those who oppose the concept of assisted suicide for any reason, whether moral, ethical, religious, or otherwise. The judge merely ruled that the CSA, a federal statute, could not be used to support the Ashcroft directive.